Monday, December 04, 2006

When evolution isn't fast enough

Abstract art critic Kirk Varnedoe has no patience for the neurological inheritance of human culture, he wants to negotiate a new deal outside of the recognizable world of ducks and rabbits:

The dream of culture having to do with the necessity of nature, the idea that ... the way we are wired individually is the basis of what we do collectively, that what we need to do is form an art that is true to our neurology and hence universal — this dream is false. The ideal of the necessity of nature as the informative culture, the ideal of neurology and internal organization as the basis for our culture, is false. What is important about us individually, what makes us human, is precisely that we are wired for communication, for negotiation, for exchange with others.

What matters in abstract art is not involuntary firing of neurons, not our ability to recognize the duck or the rabbit. Making is more powerful than that. Our humanity and our culture are not to be based on what is involuntary but on our will to make things that form a second nature by invention and imagination. Making in art is not just a corollary of problem solving, of producing schemas that tell you whether it is a duck or a rabbit, of producing things that are corollaries for the discovery of existing truths. Instead, making is the capacity of constructing autonomous symbol systems that have a huge variety of so-called natural grammars and rules of order that are in mutation throughout history.

Making is the invention of autonomous systems, like abstraction. And what then replaces matching? What are the criteria? What is the correction? How do we make progress? How do we measure whether we have moved ahead? There is only bottomless debate, fragmented and plural consensus, with overlapping edges that evolve through history with no fixed goal. Instead of the model of constant correction, or getting closer and closer to some absolute order, what we are always about in culture is getting better locally, with no idea of any final best. This is an order not based on any natural or involuntary sequence or progression, a making not simply discovered or matching some standard but rather based on a process of invention and constant debate. This is why abstract art, and modern art in general, being based on subjective experience and open-ended interpretation, is not universal or the culmination of anything in history but the contingent phenomena of a modern, secular, liberal society.

Abstraction is precisely not grounded in any universal or grand generalities. It is tied to individual experience and to individual sensibility, as they are given greater scope and play. One part of modernity in fact believes in absolute order, and this is one of the reasons that totalitarian governments have never cared for abstract art. Our common culture ... comes, I am arguing, precisely from what is not shared among us. It is not the universal wiring, not the neurology, not the absolute forms of things external to us. The crucial motor generating cultural change, churning out the new, is best found in modern society in private visions, even when those visions are seemingly stupid, banal, hermetic, and utterly particular.

A corollary to the idea that the generator of the new is found in private visions is the idea that abstract art — far from speaking to those things that unite us, to what we all have in common — is generated precisely from giving the greatest vent to those things that make us individually different and separate from each other. And it is by this very process that it re-energizes our shared culture. This freedom and individualism in the creation of art is an irritant, like so much sand thrown into our shells. And for all the sand that we put up with, we get fantastic results, pearls!

Abstraction has been less a search for the ultimately meaningful ... than a recurrent push for the temporarily meaningless: that is, things that are found not often in exotic realms but rather on the edges of banality, familiarity, and the man-made world. It is the production of forms of order that are not recognizable as order, but vehicles of feeling that appear utterly dumb. Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: You have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in

Oh, is that what abstract artists are about? I'm glad that I came across this, because I would have concluded, in my ignorance, that it was all about wasting everyone's time.

Note the sentence with the bolded phrases. This has to be one of the most incoherent statements that I've come across in awhile. He wants to simultaneously discard shared symbol systems and yet imagines that he can thereby discover a "natural grammar". Wouldn't the shared symbol system be the natural one? The man is positively schizophrenic!


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Whatever he knows about grammar, he gets 0 points for style.

Besides, if the task is to tell the duck from the rabbit, I want a system that spits back an answer: either 'duck' or 'rabbit.'

Nothing else will quite do.

December 04, 2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

My eyes starting swimming in the 2nd paragraph and I gave up.

December 04, 2006 9:05 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Duck! No, rabbit! Duck! Rabbit! Ruck! Dabbit! Damn it.

December 05, 2006 1:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oh boy. Scientific rationalism meets the postmodern artistic sensibility. Are you guys really sure you want to get rid of us pre-Enlightenment types? Be careful what you wish for.

It would be fun to attend a lecture by Dawkins on altruism and ask him at the end to explain how nature selects for the banal.

December 05, 2006 4:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: Nice illusion, but I think that the analysis is wrong. I can switch it from duck to rabbit by changing my focus from the left side of the head to the right, and I can see both if I focus on the white of the eye to my right of the pupil.

December 05, 2006 6:55 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


As a matter of reason, it is indeed possible to determine what is more boring than ballet.

Congratulations. You found it.

But darnnit, man, some questions really don't need answering.

December 05, 2006 8:38 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Wouldn't the shared symbol system be the natural one?

No, the shared system would obviously be the artificial and repressive one, considering that it's bourgeousie like yourself, and Skipper, and Harry, that are doing the sharing. Once that artificial and repressive system is overthrown, whatever system comes after is the natural one. Have you not been paying attention these last hundred and thirty five years?

December 05, 2006 9:26 PM  

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